For the last five years, the World Junior Championship has been a wonderfully unpredictable 10 (or 11) days of hockey. The 2014 version is likely to be the same, offering a lot of entertainment (or frustration) and making for a terrific hockey watching experience.
There’s so much to love about this tournament and that unpredictability is right at the top of the list. Since Canada’s run of five consecutive medals ended in 2010, there has been three different gold medalists over the last four events. The United States has two golds, while Sweden and Russia each have one.
That leaves this tournament with no shortage of notable angles to keep track of. There of course is the Canadian gold drought, which is lasting far longer than Hockey Canada would like, but has increased the entertainment value of the tournament. It’s not just an event that matters to only Canadians. Every country that enters has eyes on winning and most federations have taken measures to put more of an emphasis on this tournament. That is helping raise the level of international hockey as a whole.
There’s the U.S. bid to repeat with a roster almost completely different from last year’s team with only three players back from the gold medal squad. The Americans come in as a bit of an underdog compared to Sweden and Canada, and maybe even Russia will be slotted ahead, but American sports fans sure seem to relish that role.
Sweden is hoping to bring gold on home ice with no less than 11 returnees from last year’s medal squad. The Tre Kronor have become a force at all levels of international hockey and will be icing one of its best teams its ever had at this event. That’s especially true with Elias Lindholm and Filip Forsberg loaned back to the team from their respective NHL clubs.
Russia is the ever-unpredictable team. Always with loads of skill, but sometimes a failure to put it all together at the right time. They may have the tournament’s best goalie in Andrei Vasilevsky and the additions of Mikhail Grigorenko and Nikita Zadorov, who have NHL time under their belts already, certainly help in a big way.
Finland boasts perhaps one of the most exciting players in the tournament in Teuvo Teravainen (more on him and others later) and also have Rasmus Ristolainen loaned from the Buffalo Sabres. Then there’s the always solid goaltending the team possesses.
The rest of the teams may be able to make some noise, but the five best hockey countries have seemingly become well established, with the Czechs, Slovaks and Swiss all slightly behind in the lower tier. Then comes Germany and Norway.
When it comes to overall talent, Sweden has been generating a lot of buzz as the tournament favorite, especially with their 11 returnees. I think that’s a fair assessment, but Canada is getting grossly undersold in terms of talent. I’m not sure if that’s just a lowering of the bar to create that underdog feel, but a look up and down that roster and it looks pretty well stacked everywhere except for goaltending.
I think those two teams are the top two in the tournament on paper. Then comes the U.S. and Russia, then Finland, then the rest. That’s just on paper though.
If the tournament has told us anything, whatever shows up on paper, is really deceptive. The tournament can change so much from day to day, game to game and it gets really interesting when it hits the second round.
Which brings us to our next item on the preview checklist…
The tournament format has changed this year. Up until now, the top three teams from each group at the end of the preliminary round would advance to the medal round, with the top finisher getting a bye. That would send four teams into the relegation round.
This year, only two teams — the last place finishers in each group at the end of the prelim round — play to stave off relegation. The top four teams from each group advance to the quarterfinals and no one gets the bye. All eight teams have to play in the quarterfinals, which in my estimation, can be a game-changer in the tournament.
The quarterfinal is also when the groups cross over. Meaning the first place-team from Group A plays the fourth-place team from Group B and so on. The balance of the groups this year puts a lot of pressure on the teams that finish second, third and fourth in Group A.
For instance, whoever finishes in second place in Group A is likely going to have to play one of Finland, Sweden or Russia right there in the quarterfinal. That’s a really tough draw in a single-elimination format.
That said, crazy things can happen when the medal round begins. You get a hot goalie or a certain scorer finds his touch at the right time and you’ve got a very different game. With such a slim margin for error, this is where we may see some upsets and some overall havoc in the tournament.
The reason the IIHF made this change is probably because there were too many years Canada, who seems to host this thing every couple of years, was getting the bye to the semis a lot, meaning a loss of a good game for TV ratings for TSN and ticket sales in Canada. So this move isn’t an innocent balance of competition thing, but that doesn’t mean it can’t make things interesting. It does, however, unfortunately de-emphasize group play.
The preliminary round is less of a survival round now. There are usually two clear teams that are out of their element in the tournament. This year, that would be Germany and Norway. Each are expected to finish in the relegation round, with the loser getting sent down to Division 1A next year and the winner remaining in the top flight.
All that said, the quality of hockey is still likely to be high. The top teams are all very good and are all constructed so differently it seems. That’s going to make for some compelling matchups no matter the round.
As always, there’s a lot of great players to watch, too, which is one of the best parts of the tournament. Getting a glimpse of some of the future NHL stars is a real highlight of a lot of fans, who normally wouldn’t see these guys until they got to the league. There’s also often a few guys who you might never hear from again that can come play hero in the World Juniors. You just never know.
So in closing this preview, here’s a look at the non-U.S. players I’m most excited to watch in this tournament.
Connor McDavid (2015) — Canada — F — The hype is building around McDavid and it should be. As a 1997-born player, he is a “doube underager” meaning he’s what would be considered two years too young for this tournament. That said, he could end up as Canada’s best forward with the way he is able to play. I saw McDavid at the World U18s last year and was just amazed at the skill level and the high hockey IQ. He just sees things a lot of players, regardless of age, don’t. He could be a force even as one of the tournament’s youngest players. You know how Nathan MacKinnon got a lot of Sidney Crosby-esque hype? MacKinnon is way ahead of where he was at the same age. This kid is special.
Jonathan Drouin (TBL) — Canada — F — A magician with the puck, Drouin should be a huge part of Canada’s attack this year. Whether he’s playing center or wing, he will have a chance to produce. The skill level and his ability to create offensively is just really fun to watch. He has even more space on the big sheet to do what he does best as well.
Aaron Ekblad (2014) — Canada — D — Could Canada make a 17-year-old its top defenseman at the WJC? Ekblad has been playing like he belongs in that role. He can do a little bit of everything and is more than capable of playing big minutes in key situations. Ekblad could be a top-three pick in this year’s draft and will have a huge test at the WJC.
Teuvo Teravainen (CHI) — Finland — F — The Chicago Blackhawks 2012 first-round draft pick very well could be one of the tournament’s most exciting talents. He has a high skill level and is a terrific finisher. Teravainen always seems to find himself in the right place and makes the right plays so often. Finland is going to lean on him heavily, too. They’re not the deepest team, so getting Teravainen a lot of ice and giving him opportunities to score are going to be big keys for that team. As Finland’s best player, clearly, he is a guy teams will key in on, which should challenge him. How he deals with that will be really interesting to watch.
Rasmus Ristolainen (BUF) — Finland — D — A seasoned veteran of Finland’s national program, he’ll be a big leader for the Finns. Assuming he’s returned to health, Ristolainen is going to play a ton of minutes, maybe even close to 30 a game for Finland and he should be able to excel. He knows the big ice, he defends well on it and he has the ability to produce a bit from the blue line.
Filip Forsberg (NSH) — Sweden — F — How happy do you think Sweden is to have Forsberg back? Especially after getting NHL experience? This is a level Forsberg should dominate at and he has the experience to do so. This will be his third WJC and with the games on home ice, look for him to take over in this tournament. Assuming he has recovered well from a recent concussion, he should be a force.
Elias Lindholm (CAR) — Sweden — F — It’s almost not fair that Swedes get Lindholm back as well. They immediately get one of the best two-way centers in their system and a guy who knows how to succeed in tournaments like this. Lindholm is a 200-foot player, but also has the skills to create offensively and make his linemates better. Depending on who he gets slotted with in the lineup, he should be a big part of Sweden’s attack.
Andre Burakovsky (WSH) — Sweden — F — The Capitals first-rounder is an extremely skilled winger, who should be one of Sweden’s top scorers. He has great finish near the net and has some make-you-miss puck skills as well.
Sebastian Collberg (MTL) — Sweden — F — Over two previous WJC appearances, Collberg has 13 points. That’s really good. Now he’s a 19-year-old veteran and on home ice. This kid can dance with the puck and when he’s at his best is a really thrilling player to watch. His experience and skill should make him a big-time player in this tournament.
Marko Dano (CBJ) — Slovakia — F — Dano has been one of my favorites to watch in various international tournaments over the years. He doesn’t always out-skill guys, but he has a good work ethic and does have the creativity to generate offense even when playing on a weak team. Dano was so good last year that he made Slovakia’s World Championship team as a 17-year-old. Now at 18, he’ll be a leader on Slovakia’s team in his third World Junior Championship. He had nine points last year and looks to be a big threat with more experience. He’s quite a prospect for the Blue Jackets, who made him a surprise first-round pick last year.
Andrei Vasilevski (TBL) — Russia — G — Perhaps the best goalie in this tournament coming into the WJC, the Tampa first-rounder has a .923 save percentage in the KHL this season. He also is playing in his third WJC, so the experience level helps a lot, too. He will see a lot of pucks with Russia’s very average defense, but he has the capability to steal games.
Mikhail Grigorenko (BUF) — Russia — F — Getting Grigorenko back in his own age group can only help in his development. Instead of wallowing in the lineup for the struggling Sabres, he’s going to play a big role and be leaned on heavily for Russia. This will be his third WJC and he has 11 points over his previous two tournaments. He could be a huge threat for Russia, who will be sorely missing Valeri Nichushkin.
Pavel Buchnevich (NYR) — Russia — F — A gifted scorer, Buchnevich is going to be one of the best finishers in the tournament. A deadly one-timer and devastating release on any shot, he’s a guy that comes in under-the-radar, but extremely exciting. His shot could be deadly, especially when paired with a strong playmaker like a Grigorenko.
Jakub Vrana (2014) — Czech Republic — F — Possibly the best Czech prospect since Tomas Hertl, Vrana is a highly-skilled individual. He’s struggled in the Swedish pros this year, so he should be looking to break out as he auditions for this year’s NHL draft. When he’s at the top of his game, he can take shifts over. He’ll have to for a fairly weak Czech side.
Leon Draisaitl (2014) — Germany — F — He had six points for Germany at the last WJC, in helping the team stay in the top level once again. Now Draisaitl has 51 points in just 33 WHL contests this year with the Prince Albert Raiders. The folks in Germany are really excited about this 6-2, 200-pound forward and they should be. A likely first-round draft pick this year in the draft, Draisaitl will have to take over some games for Germany, but it probably won’t be enough to stave off playing in the relegation round. The Germans should be able to handly Norway, though.
This list could keep going for a while, but you’ve got cookies to eat, probably. This tournament should be as entertaining as any. It all starts Thursday.
Here are a few helpful outside links to enhance your following of the tournament: